Pittsburgh — Jeff Wooster is both a scientist and a marketer. That means he can explain how plastics are recycled and then he can explain why it's good to recycle plastics.
The global sustainability director for packaging and specialty plastics at Dow Chemical Co. also realizes that plastics suffer a black eye in some circles, but knows that doesn't have to be the case.
“Plastic is a very good material from a sustainability point of view, but the average consumer thinks that plastic is a very bad material from a sustainability point of view,” Wooster said at the annual SPE Blow Molding Conference recently in Pittsburgh.
“Why is that? They don't know the benefits,” he said. “We've got to promote the benefits so that people can say, ‘Yes, trash is a terrible problem. We need to fix the problem of littering and we need to fix the problem of waste' instead of trying to change the material.”
Plastics that end up in the ocean or on the side of the road, or even in the trash can, help reinforce a negative perception of the material, he told the crowd at the conference organized by the Blow Molding Division of the Society of Plastics Engineers.
“We have a vision at Dow and our vision is that all plastic packaging materials go into the recycle bin so that their value can be used. For extrusion blow molded bottles. It's not too difficult,” he said. “You take your detergent bottle, your shampoo bottle, and if you are an average consumer, you put it in your single-stream recycling bin and it goes away to a material recycling facility where it gets sorted and gets sold to a processor. They grind it up, wash it and they turn it into a new item.
“Consumer's happy. Producer's happy. Brand owner's happy. Retailer's happy. Everybody's happy,” he said. “But then there are those other items that aren't so easy to recycle and it's important for the plastics industry that we work together to make sure that everything can get into the bin.
“Because if some types of packaging can't be recycled, they will create a perception in people's minds that plastic is not such a great material when it comes to sustainability,” Wooster said.
“If you ask the average consumer what they think about the environmental performance of plastic packaging, you will not get such a great response,” he said. “That's why we really need to work together, we need to promote what we have that's advantageous already and we need to improve what's not so great.”
Changing the consumer viewpoint of a recycled material is not unique to the plastics industry. There's continue education earmarked for the entire recycling community to help reinforce the idea of diverting a whole host of materials form the waste stream.
And the recycled paper fiber industry, for example, undertook a campaign within its own ranks years ago to stop calling the material “wastepaper,” a common name used even by recyclers at the time. It was an effort to change the perception of the material through language.
“We need to help people understand what the benefits of plastics are so that we can have some natural allies to help come to the defense and support of the industry when we need it,” Wooster said.
“The first thing we need to do is we need to change the idea that we're generating waste and talk about generating resources. People like the idea of collecting and using resources. They don't like the idea of creating waste. So if we can talk about plastic packaging after the consumer's done with it as a resource instead of as a waste, we will have achieved that first step toward better recognition and appreciation,” he told the blow molding crowd.